The name Theravada means “the way of the elders.” It is an austere religion that requires solitude, meditation, and self-mastery through which each member hopes to achieve Nirvana. Because of these requirements, the possibility of liberation is limited to a few. Many of its followers are monks and nuns who spend most of their time in meditation and teaching. Theravada Buddhism is sometimes called “Hinayana Buddhism,” Hinayana meaning “small vehicles,” but this term is not accepted by followers of the religion (Conze, 2002).
On the other hand, Mahayana means “large vehicle.” It is a less austere system than Theravada Buddhism and emphasizes liberation for everyone. Many Mahayana Buddhists believe in liberation through good faith and good works. Their object is not only to obtain a personal Nirvana, but to help others to that goal (Mizuno, 2001).
The Mahayana branch has developed a system of ideal Buddhas, or enlightened ones. The most important Buddha is the Amitabha, or Amida, Budhha, to whom members can appeal for deliverance.
Some Mahana Buddhists also believe in a goddess, a symbol of compassion, who is called Kwan Yin in China and Kwannon in Japan (Mizuno, 2001).
Mahayana Buddhists have elaborate temples presided over by priests. They have colorful festivals and solemn rituals. Statues of the various Buddhas and Bodhisattras (Buddhas-to-be) play a part in their worship, but the statues themselves are not worshiped. Mahayana Buddhism is divided into many sects, including Zen, Jodo, Shin, Tendai, and Nichiren Shoshu (Soka Gakkai) (Carrithers, 2003).